The coffee at breakfast was terrible! You could tell by the looks on the officer's faces. I couldn't help but look at the expression on Donaldson's face. He looked like a man with a plan as his system tried to digest the foul brew.
"What is this, Pinto bean coffee?" he finally said.
"No, this is much to bad for that." Rodriguez responded, "It has the fine texture of a fine French... oil."
"Yeah, motor oil!" I said.
We all laughed, even though it wasn't really funny. The mess hall was abuzz with the early morning behavior of men and women that had wanted to sleep in. The other officers were at their tables laughing and talking. I could hear the voice of that Major that had pissed me off the day before. He was a tall man, maybe in his mid-50's. At that time I could hardly stand him. In fact I couldn't even look at him without a fit of rage. He was, as I thought, my bitter enemy.
"Look at him over there." I said to Patterson, "The old fool is full of himself. He's a blowhard; he never shuts-up."
"Don't take him so personally." replied Patterson; "He's just an old man. Let him have his kicks before he kicks the bucket."
"Do you guys even have any idea who that "old fool" is?" added Rodriguez
"No." we responded.
"That fool, rather, that man..." started Rodriguez in a semi-sarcastic manner, "...is Major Thomas Redenbacher, the hero of 2030."
"Yeah, right!" I said, "That man is a complete idiot. Redenbacher was a genius in a fighter. That man, by all I have heard, is a "so-so" Flight Technician."
" Be that as it may..." he continued, "...he is the man."
Just then the "red" light came on and breakfast was over. We all grabbed our helmets and shuffled to the door. Major Damson and the Colonel walked just ahead of us. General Hertz's envoy, Major Wesson, had been waiting and met them. We watched as they exchanged salutes and information packets.
"The commanding officers aren't very talkative, are they?" Patterson uttered as we walked down the corridor.
"Quiet, rookie!" Major "Old Fool" lashed, "Just keep your mouth closed and listen up."
"Officers" major Damson announced, "please come in and take a seat at your assigned station."
We entered the war room and walked to the station that had our name written in cold marker. That was the first time I had ever felt really small. Large screens with charts and coordinates adorned the walls, the blue and white United Earth flags draped down from the ceiling.
"Bring up Sectors 530 through 534." said a voice over a loud speaker.
Every screen suddenly went dark and a hum filled the room. The Colonel then stepped out from behind the curtains. We all snapped to attention.
"As you were, officers" he ordered, "I hope you're a ready for the start of what promises to be a history making mission. Major Damson; please inform them of their mission objective.
"Yes, Sir" replied Damson as he walked to his prepared notes, "This is Sector 530. We know the N'Kerlan offensive will occur here, in this Sector."
The screens came to life with representations of planets, ships, trade routes and grid-lines. Names and numbers soon lined-up with their respective objects.
"There are three major Panaton trade-routes that intersect the upper section of Sector 530. These are shown here in red. In the event of an all out N'Kerlan attack, these routes will be protected by Star-carrier based Boban Class starfighters. Therefore, they will not be our top priority."
Damson paused and reviewed his notes. He clicked the screens to display the next image. A large network of intersecting yellow lines superimposed the map of Sector 530.
"These yellow patrol lines…" Damson pointed out, "are our main patrol routes. 20 patrols that will be Operated by "V" shaped formations of three Norris Class starfighters. The buddy system will be observed at all times. It is our best chance at repelling, or at least delaying, a slaughter."
Major Damson then opened a folder he pulled from below his lectern.
"This list will be followed to the letter…"
We all held our collective breath.
"… With the exception of…"
Here it came.
"…Formation 19, the unit consisting of 2nd Lieutenants Premont, Patterson and Rodriguez."
As Damson said this I noticed Rodriguez's head drop. He was wilting like a neglected houseplant. He just new it would be him that would be taken out of the formation. There went his only chance to be Captain.
"Rodriguez, you won't be flying this mission." Damson maintained, Rodriguez had been right. This was terrible; this had to hurt him. I really felt for him, but thing were about to get a whole lot worse."
"Major Redenbacher, you will take his place."
"What?" I said out loud.
"What was that, Lieutenant?" the Colonel asked.
"Eh…Nothing, Sir." I had no idea what to say.
"Just keep quiet and listen." The Colonel responded, "Is that clear, Lt. Premont."
"Yes, Sir. Crystal clear." I said nearly biting my tongue.
"Good, Major Damson, please continue"
"Thank you, Sir. As I was saying. Rodriguez will remain here as Mission Tactician. By the power vested in me by the 23rd United Earth Congress, you are hereby promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant. Signed President James Light, counter-signed Riccardo Karuchelli, Secretary of the United Earth Air Force and Colonel Charles Tyson, U. E. A. F. commanding officer, 8th Air Force, Frontier division."
Rodriguez stood and accepted the silver First Lieutenant's bars and the cord of a Mission Tactician. He was now one step closer to Captain. He must have been in heaven. He turned and looked at us with the look of a man pardoned. I, on the other hand, felt as if I was in purgatory. I was still in the same fighter as Patterson, but I also had an unwanted "old grump" on board.
"Now that that is out of the way; notice the make-up of Sector 530. One can see that there are no trade routes, ships, or outposts present below grid-plane 40. These planetary systems, eight in all, are completely desert. Water is scarce; food impossible to obtain and temperatures are extremely hot by day and frigid by night. While we do claim these planets as our territory; it can be considered enemy soil. Avoid them at all costs."
Damson's report went on for an hour and a half. More and more charts graphs and maps. More and more tactical arrays and historical information of the importance of Sector 530.
We picked up our info-packets and headed for the hangar level. I felt a steady drag on my system. It very well may be combat time. As we left the war room, I heard the Colonel say to General Hertz's envoy,
"May God look after them and bring them back to us again."
All Wesson could say in reply was,
The walk to the hangar level was, like most things had been, in silence. We entered the outer chamber and suited up. We were required to wear our Class-A uniforms on under our flight suits, just in case we were downed in enemy grids. This made the flight suit twice as uncomfortable.
Talking resumed as we entered the inner chamber. The huge metal doors swung open and unleashed as steady blast of steam. Pressure in the Star-craft Maintenance area was kept high, to counter act the presence of leaks. This too made the flight suits heavy with sweat. With all that aside, I was the Norris Class Starfighter that took my breath away.
"This is great," I said out loud. "These things are beauties!"
"You said it, Buster" Patterson answered.
"Don't get all dreamy, Premont." Major Redenbacher added, "All you need to do is fly it. Save the poetry for the poets."
"Any thing you say, Major" I said annoyed
"Now get up there and go through the check list, rookie." Major Redenbacher asserted, "This isn't the Civil Space Patrol anymore."
He was pushing it, however, I resolved that I would fly the missions. Why should I let this old bastard get on my case? I climbed the latter up to the control-center. The interior smelled like that of a new car. Lights and screens shown like a Christmas tree. Patterson followed me and took her position. Redenbacher went below deck to the second level to start his checklist on the engines.
"Close all hatches for Decompression Procedure." A voice from the radio blasted.
"Hatch secure" I responded, "Formation 19, C 530 ready for check."
"Roger, 19, C 530, you are clear."
This was it; I saw the hangar doors, above me, radiate with the flashing of red and amber warning lights. The great doors slowly began to detract. I saw the first stars of my military career shine through the small opening.
"Engines Check, Premont." Major Redenbacher reported, "99 percent… go."
The doors opened and there it was, space… the final frontier. I could hear the old Star Trek theme songs playing, but this wasn't old TV. It was real.
"Final check… ignition sequence in 5…4…3…2…1"
The Spacefighter lifted off the pad and we were space borne. Patterson informed me that Sensors were on line and we were meeting with Captain Teston and Major Danby's fighters. We soon were in formation and heading toward Sector 530.
I could still taste the coffee from Breakfast as we entered Hyper-Warp.